Thursday, May 28, 2009

First year reflections.

I thought about this after the first month, the first semester, over winter break, and several other times...but now that the school year is over it feels right. And I have time, which is kind of what this is about. I just finished up my first year in an MFA program and I'm wondering how the other first-years out there are thinking about their experiences.

A couple thoughts to get us started:

1) Where did the time go? I feel like I was just looking for an apartment and registering for fall courses. Now I'm halfway done (I'm in a two-year program). I tried to remember along the way that this was going to feel quick, to take it all in, to take advantage of every opportunity...but did I? The first 4-6 weeks was a blur. Between moving, orientation, workshops, classes, writing center duties, reading series events, events outside the program, home life drama, and whatever else I'm forgetting, well, it's going to take some time to sort it all out. I'm happy with my productivity but my main resolution at the end of the year was to spend the summer building a time machine. Or a time-slowing machine.

2) What am I doing? I'm interested in what your course loads (or maybe it's a matter of "course balance"?) looked like. I spent a lot of time on graduate seminar work -- theory, term papers, presentations, etc. -- and every minute spent away from my stories felt wrong. I understand the value of taking such classes, and I benefited from my time in the seminars (a great Southern Lit. class, in particular), but am I using this time to write stories or to write term papers? The second semester was easier than the first because I made sure to put my stories at the top of the list. It was way too easy in the fall to feel like I needed to be everything for everyone -- the best writing center tutor, the best pseudo-PhD candidate, whatever... Sure, my seminar work probably suffered in the spring, but I saw a much better progression in my stories, and that feels like where I need to be. I'm sure that would change a bit if I was interested in the post-MFA PhD route, but I don't think that's in the cards.

So it's all about time, time, time. Where did it go, and how did I spend it? I'd sure like to hear how other writers feel about their first years, and I bet the conversation would be helpful for those starting this fall, too.


tanya.debuff said...

Great idea, Alex! I would definitely like to hear from those who have been through their first year! It would be very valuable in my opinion. Thanks!

Kerry Headley said...

Love this idea. As someone who hasn't even applied yet, I am curious to hear all about others' experiences. Please share!

Emily said...

I'll be starting a program in August, and I think it would be super helpful to hear from people who've just finished the first year.

Is there anything you wish you'd known, or done, before starting? Or anything you wish you'd done differently that first semester or first year?

Lautreamont said...

Well, I will begin because few have said anything about my program and, when it is mentioned, it is usually spoken of in a negative sense. So, I just finished my first year at Columbia University and it was almost frighteningly amazing.

When I began at Columbia U I noticed many of my cohorts were very well published and some even anthologized. This was off-putting in that I am 24 and my work has appeared in a single not so well known lit journal. Yet I immediately noticed that each student; from those who are considerably older than me and have taught at Universities to those who were younger than me and even more new to poetry were both open, excited to share, and amazingly nice in terms of critique (but also quite firm when necessary).

The faculty was yet another pleasant surprise. Mark Strand was definitely a difficult teacher to please but even he never cut anyone's head off for not meeting his expectations. His fellow Pulitzer prize winner, Richard Howard, was even more excited to read the work of his students and engage with them. With Tim Donelly, Marie Howe, Josh Bell, Tarcy K. Smith, and Mark Bibbins I had similarly wonderful experiences. With so many speakers, lectures, and visiting teachers coming to Columbia and the NYC area I really could not imagine being more immersed in poetry than I now am.

Honestly, the cost is a detractor from Columbia but with the legion of teaching spots (CU and C.A.T.), internships, fellowships, and grants even that was easily overcome by me and my cohorts. I honestly love it at Columbia and am grateful for all the doors it has opened up to me. I would really like to hear how other people feel about their experience at other programs.

Vince said...

write, write more, and then write even more. also, mail out work in the mean time. no one will read your work without you taking the first step.

Vince said...

Use the down time to do research and work that will not get done in the classrooms. Send out submissions.

Alex said...

That's a good point, Vince, about sending work out. I guess this might sound obvious, but nobody is going to push you to do least, I haven't felt much pushing aside from my own desire to revise/submit, revise/submit, revise/submit.

I should also add another "reflection": I left a corporate career and wondered if a full residency program would really offer as much as I hoped. And what I found is that being in such a creative and nurturing environment helped me develop my stories more than I could have in my pre-MFA home. I know that because I'm back in my old hometown now, and that cool creative feeling has apparently stayed behind in Nashville.

I think what I enjoyed most was attending readings by visiting writers. I find poetry readings particularly inspiring (I think being away from fiction turns off my analytical side), and there's a definite sense of energy around events like that.

Again, I'm Mr. Obvious today! But if anyone out there is having the same doubts/fears I did (particularly after leaving a career, family, established home behind), well, I'm one person who wouldn't change a thing. It's been great.

tanya.debuff said...

I was looking forward to hearing about first years' experience....I guess they must be busy busy busy! :) Guess I'll find out in a couple months!

Percy said...

Hello everyone:

I'm starting the fiction program at New School in August. It's been 5 years since my undergrad and I've been working ever since.

I have so many concerns about making a big move (I'm coming from Miami) working, balancing the program and producing good material.

I would greatly appreciate some advice or shared experience about living/working (probably full time) and managing an MFA program in a city such as NY.

Is it unrealistic to think I need to get another job comparable to my pay and responsibilities now? Can anyone give me a suggestion as to how they balance everything?

I feel like I am so far behind and unprepared for what's coming... any advice is appreciated.

Anyone at the NewSchool this year?

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Joel said...

Just finishing up my first semester at the U of Arizona in Fiction.

WIth 35 second years and 25 first years (spread out over the 3 genres), it's a large, social program. There's always a reading, or a Salon, or just post-workshop drinks at some bar in Tucson.

I'm teaching two sections of Freshman Composition, which is a heavy load, and haven't written as much as I'd liked.

Manuel Munoz has been great, as has my craft class with Fenton Johnson.

Every two weeks, MFA students run W.I.P (Works in Progress), which I read a few pieces of flash for a month ago.

Robert Boswell and Antonya Nelson came for a reading one week (former alums), and there's always submissions to read for the Sonora Review.

If anyone's interested in U of A, please don't hesitate to contact me. It's a full life down here in the Sonoran Desert.

-Joel Smith

Kerry Headley said...

Hey Joel,

If you're still around I would love to hear more about U of Arizona. You can email me at kerry dot headley at